Exchanged and Marked by Tom Jennings
[published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 3, February 2006]
Class, Self, Culture, by Beverley Skeggs, Routledge, 2004, price £21.99
This thought-provoking book examines the historical development of representations of the working-class, and the contemporary variations on age-old themes that currently beset us. Although dense and theory-based for sociology and cultural studies audiences, it crystallises many concepts of considerable interest to anarchists while decisively arguing for the central organising roles of the middle- and working-classes in Western societies – despite the great and the good (as well as many radicals) somehow believing that class has become irrelevant while poverty and destitution spiral. Crucially, identity politics and the privileging of oppressions are thoroughly trashed by an author demonstrating throughout how prejudicial characterisations and definitions of the working-classes have always overlapped and traded those based on race, gender and sexuality – though without (spurious) biological essence lurking behind the difference.
And, rather than focusing as marxists would on the ‘objective’ struggle between ‘capital’ and ‘labour’, attention is shifted to how the fields of language and ideas shape lives and determine history. But this is no bourgeois idealism, because these fields are simultaneously produced by and make possible both the deployment of money and material resources, and the government of bodies. The latter is achieved via what modern social theory variously terms the ‘symbolic economy’ or ‘order of discourse’. So systems of naming, classification and evaluation are physically made material in sets of ‘facts’ and prescriptions based on their truth and legitimacy, translated into disciplines guiding action in the world and institutions exerting power. The state, as well as what counts as the ‘economic’, co-determine and co-constitute each other’s effects – and to critique one and excuse the other would be fatal.
However, for several centuries the effort to persuade people to govern themselves rather than using force has trickled down the social hierarchy. Neoliberal globalisation recasts definitions of who counts as a valuable citizen – in brief a separate individual who ‘rationally’ calculates and exploits personal characteristics and abilities in an objectively neutral and increasingly informational market. And those failing to so define themselves and act accordingly are conceived of as moral, social and political problems to be devalued, punished, and kept regimented in place with more precarious lives. Working class people, of course, are especially likely to be unwilling and/or unable to be as obligingly mobile and flexible as employers and governments demand, given our different cultural values and social dispositions – not to mention the small matter of being systematically denied the resources and opportunity to cultivate the requisite social, aesthetic and knowledge distinctions so jealously guarded by the middle-classes. And we’re supposed to ‘respect’ them? I think not – and neither, in this respect, does Skeggs.